Friday, 27 March 2020

The Remembered Film (Isabelle Tollenaere, 2018)

Back in 2015, Antwerp-based Isabelle Tollenaere's feature debut Battles examined what becomes of the traces of war: in peacetime, what happens to the various buildings and objects that were specifically constructed for conflict?  Whether chronicling the various methods of disposing of ordnance or highlighting how a prison camp can be repurposed, Battles nonetheless hinted at the unsettling idea that war - despite what John Lennon might have said - is never really over; rather, we just move to a state where we're between conflicts, and we learn to live with - and even make inventive use of - what's been left behind.

Tollenaere's 2018 short The Remembered Film, which also takes a novel look at war, could quite easily be viewed as a companion piece to Battles.  Opening in a lush green forest, it's some time before we hear anyone speak - on this basis, you'd be quite forgiven for thinking the film was going to be dialogue-free.  When someone eventually does break the silence, it's in the surprising form of a young man (quite possibly a teenager) in army fatigues, who speaks directly to the camera as he recounts some details of a conflict he was involved in.  This sets the pattern for the rest of the film as, one by one, a series of similarly-aged men relate their wartime experiences to the camera; quite poignantly, a few of them say nothing at all, but simply stare at the lens.

What is highly unusual about this setup, however, is that, judging by their uniforms, these soldiers seem to belong to several different armies: Wehrmacht, American and Soviet troops all appear to share these woods (although, curiously, all the men have English accents).  But what is far stranger is that the soldiers speak about wars that they couldn't possibly have participated in.  While these memories clearly don't belong to these men, they nonetheless do sound like authentic experiences.  From the stories, you do understand that war never really ends - at least not for the men behind these brief monologues who, in the main, remain haunted and disturbed by what they've seen.

Shot in a naturalistic, documentary style, The Remembered Film initially proves to be a jarring, slightly disorienting experience, and it takes a few minutes to tune in to what's actually going on.  Once you do, it's a satisfying, wistful piece, one which lingers long after its 18 minutes are up.  While none of the soldiers in The Remembered Film are as young as those featured in Monos, Tollenaere's film would work as an opening short for Alejandro Landes' nightmarish, hallucinatory tale; while the two films boast very different styles, they do share a special quality, one which taps into the poignancy of the countless young people who have been sent off to war.

Darren Arnold

Images: Flanders Image


Wednesday, 11 March 2020

[CANCELLED] BFI Flare 2020 (18/3/20–29/3/20)

UPDATE (16/3/20)
This event has now been cancelled.  Click here for more info.

The 34th edition of BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival unveiled its full programme tonight [18/2/20] at BFI Southbank. One of the world’s most significant and long-standing LGBTIQ+ film events, BFI Flare will present over 50 features, 85 shorts and a wide range of special events, guest appearances, family-friendly and free events, club nights and more.

The Festival will open with the World Premiere of Matt Fifer and Kieran Mulcare’s remarkable feature debut Cicada, about a young man forced to face past traumas when he embarks on a new relationship. The Closing Night Gala is the UK Premiere of acclaimed theatre director Jessica Swale’s Summerland, a moving Second World War drama about a woman rediscovering her ability to love, starring Gemma Arterton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

Bumping into an ex the day she moves into a new apartment makes Anne reflect on her past in Valerie Bisscheroux’s Anne+ (Episodes 1-6), a smart and sexy web series. Taking refuge in an idyllic lake house following her recent break-up, Karen meets the mysterious Lana in Clementine (Dir. Lara Jean Gallagher), a moody and atmospheric debut. This year the Interbank LGBT Forum Members will support debut director Monica Zanetti’s Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt), a delightful rom-com where Ellie’s dead aunt has the perfect dating advice for her. But will she listen to it? A kiss between two childhood friends has dramatic repercussions in Matthias & Maxime, Xavier Dolan’s eighth film.

Don your best Ver-sayce and leave your inhibitions at the door for a night you will never forget. Join award-winning Baby Lame as your host for a trash-tastic interactive screening, Showgirls Shade-Along (Fri 20th March), bringing Paul Verhoeven’s outrageously camp classic to life as you’ve never experienced it before. This special event will screen alongside Jeffrey McHale’s fascinating Showgirls documentary, You Don't Nomi (Fri 20th March, Sun 22nd March) which puts one of cinemas most baffling creations under the microscope.

From 18th – 29th March at BFI Southbank, the Festival will showcase the best of the latest global LGBTIQ+ features and short films. BFI Flare is divided into three thematic strands: Hearts, Bodies and Minds.

Source: BFI


Wednesday, 26 February 2020

The Lost Prince (Michel Hazanavicius, 2020)

OSS 117 director Michel Hazanavicius won an Oscar in 2012 for The Artist, his charming (if slight) silent movie which netted four other Academy Awards, including one for OSS star Jean Dujardin.  Hazanavicius faltered with his next film, a poorly-received remake of Fred Zinneman's The Search, but bounced back in 2017 with the excellent Jean-Luc Godard biopic Redoubtable.  Happily, his latest film provides further proof that The Search was little more than a blip.  As with the majority of his work, The Lost Prince stars Hazanavicius' wife Bérénice Bejo, who is here joined by Omar Sy, an actor who in recent years has landed a string of roles in entries in long-running Hollywood franchises such as Jurassic Park, X-Men and Transformers.  There's also a sizeable part for Belgian star François Damiens, who brings his fine sense of comic timing to what can perhaps be best described as a fairy tale with a rather unique twist.

Djibi (Sy) is a single dad who is completely devoted to his young daughter Sofia (Sarah Gaye).  Every night, Djibi settles down with Sofia and reads her a bedtime story, and it is during these tales that the father enters a Day-Glo fantasy world in which his words really do come to life.  In this realm, Djibi is a prince, one who always comes to Sofia's rescue when the wicked Pritprout (Damiens) has executed some dastardly plan or other.  But although Djibi's prince always saves the day, it does seem that he is aware this is just a role: once a story's finished, the main characters are revealed to be played by actors, and we witness the crew and all the backstage efforts that go into mounting these elaborate scenarios.  All of this is in sharp contrast to the modest reality occupied by Sofia and Djibi, who live in a small but cosy flat where they soon gain a new neighbour in the form of the chatty, likeable Clotilde (Bejo), who will soon appear in both worlds.  

While Djibi seems quite happy with the status quo, he fails to catch on to the fact that Sofia is growing up fast, and once she gets to high school she discovers other things in her life, meaning she would like her evenings to consist of a bit more than Djibi's stories.  Among these other interests is Max (Néotis Ronzon), a friendly classmate who is one of the first to befriend the 12-year-old at her new school.  As Djibi continues to make forays into the fantasy world, he soon discovers that he's no longer the star of the show, having been usurped by a much younger prince.  Joining the dots between the events of the two worlds isn't exactly difficult, and Djibi - who's now been relegated to little more than a bit player - plots to restore things to how they were.  In the fictional universe, Djibi is aided in his quest by an unlikely ally in the shape of former nemesis Pritprout, while in the real world it is down to Clotilde to provide some much-needed perspective.

The Lost Prince proves to be a more satisfying film than the somewhat overrated The Artist, and it's a warm if rather predictable tale which features typically winning performances from Sy, Bejo and Damiens.  The scenes set in the fantasy world look incredible, with Hazanavicius' regular cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman turning in some sterling work here.  The film features a nice nod to Schiffman's mother Suzanne in the form of a glimpse of a bus stop which bears her name; Schiffman Sr. worked closely with Truffaut, Godard and Rivette, among other greats, and it's often overlooked that she was the co-director (with Rivette) of the 13-hour Out 1The Lost Prince was certainly not a cheap film to make, so it's something of a pity that it appears to be set for middling box-office returns; it's a well-crafted and entertaining slice of family entertainment, one which shows a bit more ambition than most films of its ilk.  While his two OSS 117 films remain this director's best work (a third instalment has just finished filming - without Hazanavicius - and is set for release next year), The Lost Prince is certainly a worthy addition to his CV.

Darren Arnold

Images: Pathé

Monday, 3 February 2020

Atlantics (Mati Diop, 2019)

Last year, Atlantics' director Mati Diop made history as the first black female director to compete for Cannes' Palme d'Or; her debut feature went on to win the the festival's Grand Prix, only being pipped to the top prize by Bong Joon-ho's much-lauded Parasite.  Diop actually made her first short film way back in 2004, but in the years between that effort and last year's Cannes triumph she had become better known for her work in front of the camera, starring in the likes of Simon Killer and Claire Denis' excellent 35 Shots of Rum.  2019 came to a close with Atlantics ending up on both Netflix and the shortlist for the Oscars, and en route to these events it had also picked up the Sutherland Award for First Feature at the London Film Festival.  Not a bad year's work.

While Atlantics didn't make the final cut for the Oscars when the shortlist was chopped in half last month, its presence on Netflix will ensure the film receives way more exposure than it would have had in the times before streaming services.  The days of such a film being relegated to a limited release on the art-house circuit - before eventually turning up on a boutique home video label - seem to be fading; at the very least, such a fate is no longer a certainty.  While it will get a Blu-ray release - via the prestigious Criterion Collection, no less - later on this year, the lengthy wait which would once have been in place between the film's theatrical release and its appearance on disc is seamlessly bridged by the streaming giant.  The Netflix vs. cinema row has been raging for some time but, in the case of Atlantics, streaming's role is hard to argue against; a film which, had it appeared 10 or 15 years ago, would have been treated as a niche title can now share a home screen with the likes of Uncut Gems, Marriage Story and The Irishman.

Anyway, on to the film: Ada (Mame Bineta Sane),a young woman living in Dakar, is due to marry the wealthy Omar (Babacar Sylla).  Unfortunately, Ada's heart belongs to construction worker Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), who has been working on a huge, futuristic tower in the city.  Souleiman and his fellow builders are continually stiffed for wages by the developer (Diankou Sembene), which leads to them looking elsewhere for paying work, and they decide to attempt the perilous journey across the sea to Spain.  It's perhaps not much of  a spoiler to say that Souleiman and the others sadly don't make it to Europe; meanwhile, back in Dakar, Ada marries Omar, but their wedding night doesn't happen due to a mysterious fire occurring in the bridal suite.  To say what happens next would be to spoil, but suffice it to say that the film takes a sharp left turn, one for the better; it's really only once you reach the halfway stage that the film really starts to crackle and fizz, as Diop adds an extra layer to proceedings.

Much has been made of Atlantics' switch from realism to something altogether different, and it's a trick which has certainly been handled very deftly by Diop.  The film is wonderfully atmospheric, combining some beguiling cinematography with a driving, unnerving score.  Whether in the bustling streets of Dakar or by the side of the sea which plays a key part in the story, Diop shows a fine eye for light and colour.  It's a haunting, ambitious work, yet not without its flaws: there's an unevenness to proceedings which proves slightly frustrating, and the film really does take some time to get going.  But, all said, Atlantics is a fine debut feature, one which greatly impresses as it continually pushes into new territory - even if such moves don't always come off; Diop doesn't play it safe here, and there's much to like about that approach.  We'll be hearing from her for some time yet.

Darren Arnold


Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Joan of Arc (Bruno Dumont, 2019)

Following the second series of Li'l Quinquin, Bruno Dumont immediately set about making another sequel with Jeanne, or Joan of Arc, which continues his retelling of the Maid of Orléans' story which began with 2017's demented musical Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (which, incidentally, was the very first film to be reviewed in this incarnation of Holland Focus).  As with its predecessor, Jeanne is an adaptation of Charles Péguy's 1897 play Jeanne d'Arc, but this time around Dumont mixes it up a bit and opts for much gentler musical accompaniment in the form of the variété française of 70s pop star Christophe (who cameos here), whose distinctive falsetto replaces the much harsher sounds of Jeannette composer Igorrr.  There's another key personnel change in the form of cinematographer David Chambille, who comes in for Dumont's longtime DP Guillaume Deffontaines.  Chambille, who lensed last year's smash hit Invisibles, steps into Deffontaines' shoes without missing a beat, and his work here on the interiors (of which there were none in Jeannette) proves to be particularly impressive.

But perhaps the biggest surprise in Jeanne - which earned a Special Mention from the jury at Cannes - comes in the casting of its leading actress.  While you may have been expecting to see Jeanne Voisin continue in the role she played in the second half of the earlier film, it's Lise Leplat Prudhomme - the younger Joan in the previous instalment - who returns from Jeannette to play a much older version of the character in Jeanne.  Apparently Voisin was lined up to play the part but eventually bowed out, leaving Dumont to turn to his other Joan from Jeannette.  As a result, watching the two works as a double bill (or simply one very long film) will no doubt be rather jarring in terms of continuity - Joan will apparently get older then younger, perhaps leading viewers to think that Jeanne Voisin's scenes are some sort of flash-forward.  But any such issues shouldn't detract from the work of Prudhomme, who gives another terrific performance here, despite playing a character who, by the end of the film, is nearly twice the actress' age.  Jeanne is a long, hefty and frequently taxing film, and this talented ten-year-old carries it quite brilliantly.

Jeanne begins with things going very well for the title character as the Hundred Years' War between France and England rages on; with her famous victory at the Battle of Orléans in the bag, Joan is delighted to see the Dauphin crowned king of France.  However, after Charles VII (Fabrice Luchini) is installed as monarch (thanks in no small part to Joan's help), he takes a position very different to that of Joan regarding how events should proceed: Charles favours diplomacy, while La Pucelle wishes to continue fighting.  As Joan's military luck eventually runs out, she's captured then delivered to the English, for whom she's proved to be quite the fly in the ointment.  The rest - indeed, the bulk - of the film is dedicated to the exhaustive, and exhausting, ecclesiastical interrogation which this young woman is subjected to in Rouen (actually Amiens) Cathedral.  Needless to say, King Charles is nowhere to be seen as Joan is tried and sentenced.  Unless you've been living under a rock, you'll be painfully aware of the horrible, fiery fate which awaits the protagonist, and in Jeanne - as in every other screen version of this story - her inevitable untimely death hangs over the entire duration as events stick to their terrible course.

Movies about Joan of Arc are nearly as old as cinema itself and, of the many films of Joan's story, the one Dumont's take has most in common with is Jacques Rivette's Joan the Maid - although the parallels are only fully obvious now Dumont has made this second film.  Rivette's version likewise cast an actress whose age (27) was some way off that of the real Joan, and was also released as two separate films (carrying the sub-titles The Battles and The Prisons), each of which documented a different stage of Joan's short life.  Equally perversely, both projects disregard significant events: Jeanne neglects to show the capture of Joan by the Burgundians, while Joan the Maid - which totals a running time of well over five hours in its unexpurgated version - omits her entire trial, slapping up a solitary title card to account for months of what Jeanne depicts.  And Dumont, just like Rivette before him and no doubt for similar (i.e. budgetary) reasons, populates his Joan of Arc films with just a few characters at any given time; those coming to any of these films expecting to see hundreds of extras battling it out, Lord of the Rings-style, at Orlèans or Compiègne will be sorely disappointed, and may be better served by Luc Besson's unfairly maligned The Messenger.

While such a constraint could easily have seen all four of the Rivette/Dumont films succumb to an unwelcome staginess (not that Rivette was averse to a bit of theatricality in many of his other films), in Dumont's case this has been resolved via some huge, wide shots of both the windswept Opal Coast and the interior of Amiens Cathedral; both directors' films on Joan - which share a distributor in Les Films du Losange - certainly feel grand (Rivette also used the landscape to let his film open up and breathe).  In Jeanne it's actually the cathedral scenes which are the more effective, as the exteriors feature a number of abandoned WW2 blockhouses - one of which serves as Joan's prison - which are far too recognisably 20th century to really aid suspension of disbelief.  While these buildings make for an atmospheric backdrop to some of the scenes in the quite contemporary Li'l Quinquin, their presence in Jeanne is most distracting - even if Dumont claims to be aiming for a "timeless" accuracy, as opposed to a historical one.  Of course, if you're not familiar with the area where Jeanne was filmed, then this may not present too much of a problem.

In many ways, the main purpose of Jeanne appears to be to replicate the gruelling nature of Joan's trial - that is to say, to make the audience feel as drained, weary and bewildered as our young heroine as she endures endless rounds of arcane questions from the parade of clerics which lines the cathedral's benches.  The clergy's attempts may be futile vis-à-vis wearing down the accused, but they prove to be quite effective when it comes to getting the viewer to crack: the screening I attended saw numerous walkouts - apparently a not uncommon occurrence during Jeanne's theatrical release (and festival showings).  It's certainly an endurance test, and if the dry theological debates don't get you, chances are the long static takes will.  In employing such a daring, unusual film grammar, Dumont has created what is by far his most challenging work; not only is the pacing very slow and deliberate, but at 138 minutes this is the second longest of the director's films (1999's Humanity - which positively flies by in comparison - exceeds it by around ten minutes).  Jeannette may have been niche, but its sequel will appeal to far, far fewer.  Which is not to say that the film isn't worthwhile; here, Bruno Dumont presents a real cinema experience in which those with sufficient patience (say, of a saint?) will be rewarded - although the austere Jeanne has no intention of giving up its mysteries without a fight.  You have been warned.

Darren Arnold

Images: Les Films du Losange

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Monday, 23 December 2019

The 20 Best Films of 2019: An Alphabetical List

There wasn't much time available in which to put this together, and ideally I would have liked to have scribbled a little bit about each entry.  Instead, if I've written about a film on either this site or Letterboxd, then the film's title will be a clickable link which will take you to the relevant review.  I have a terrible feeling I've forgotten at least one really important film in this list, and I'm also slightly annoyed that I couldn't squeeze in Robert Rodriguez's Alita: Battle Angel, which nonetheless deserves a mention as the best of the rest.  So, in no order other than alphabetical, here are my picks of 2019:

La Belle Époque (Nicolas Bedos)

By the Grace of God (François Ozon)

Capernaum (Nadine Labaki)

Doctor Sleep (Mike Flanagan)

For Sama (Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts)

Ghost Town Anthology (Denis Côté)

The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)

It Must Be Heaven (Elia Suleiman)

Jeanne (Bruno Dumont)

Joker (Todd Phillips)

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot)

Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)

Monos (Alejandro Landes)

On a Magical Night (Christophe Honoré)

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (Martin Scorsese)

Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker (J. J. Abrams)

La vérité si je mens! Les débuts (Michel Munz, Gérard Bitton)

Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello)

That's it for this year!  See you in 2020 - have a great Christmas! 🎄